In a striking reversal, Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday announced a statewide indoor mask mandate that will require all students, staff and visitors to wear facial coverings in public and private schools.
"We're not where we were just two months ago. The aggressive delta variant has changed everything for us," Wolf said. “Wearing a mask in school is necessary to keep our children in the classroom and to keep COVID out of that classroom.”
The new mandate, which was made through an order signed by Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam, applies to public schools, charter schools, private and parochial schools, as well as career and technical centers. The requirement goes into effect Sept. 7.
The masking requirement also applies to pre-K facilities, intermediate units and child care facilities. The mandate comes amid concerns over the highly transmissible COVID-19 delta variant, which has led to an increase in new cases both in Pennsylvania and across the nation.
Beam said the number of new COVID-19 cases spurred by the delta variant is currently outpacing the speed at which people are getting vaccinated. According to the state Department of Health, 92% of current COVID-19 cases in the state have been caused by the delta variant.
“We know there will be objections to this action,” Beam said. “We are asking folks to keep it in perspective. Last year, when there was this level of community transmission, our students were learning virtually.”
Beam’s order was made under authority granted in the state’s Disease Prevention and Control Law, which is separate from the Emergency Management Services Code Wolf used to implement sweeping COVID-19 restrictions at the onset of the pandemic.
Wolf said that even though voters rolled back some of his executive powers under the Emergency Management Services Code, the change doesn’t impact the mask order since it is made under a different statute.
Wolf originally said he was leaving decisions on masking up to local officials, but reversed course last week when he urged lawmakers to return to Harrisburg to pass statewide school mask requirements.
The request was rejected by the General Assembly’s Republican leaders, who said lawmakers would not return to Harrisburg to pass a mask mandate. The GOP leaders added that mask requirements should be set at the local level, not by state officials.
“At this late date, in many of our communities, local leaders have already made important decisions they believe are in the best interest of their residents and are prepared to adjust those decisions as challenges evolve, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman and House Speaker Bryan Cutler wrote in a letter to Wolf. “We believe that the current approach – allowing local officials to manage and respond as needed – makes the most sense and should be continued.”
Republican leaders reiterated that stance on Tuesday, arguing that Wolf’s new mask mandate amounts to government overreach.
“Protecting the health and safety of our children is always a top consideration for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. However, this is exactly the kind of government overreach voters opposed when they stripped Governor Wolf of the authority to unilaterally extend emergency declarations in May,” Corman said in a statement, adding that Pennsylvanians “clearly had enough of Governor Wolf’s damaging mandates and one-size-fits-all approaches to complex problems.”
House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff said Wolf “went back on his word” by implementing mask restrictions when he previously said he would leave mask decisions to local officials.
“After months of telling Pennsylvanians that mitigation orders are a thing of the past, the Wolf administration once again went back on its word and issued another ill-advised statewide mandate that deprives Pennsylvania communities of local control and community self-determination in public health decisions,” Benninghoff said.
Wolf, however, said he had to adjust his approach after seeing that over half of the commonwealth’s school districts did not impose mask requirements. With both school districts and state legislators failing to set mask mandates, the administration was left to do it themselves, he said.
While Republicans ripped into Wolf’s new mask mandate, the decision received praise from Democrats and teachers’ unions.
House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton said the requirement is “the correct decision for the safety of Pennsylvania families and the health of our economy” and will help schools and daycares remain open.
The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), a union made up of approximately 178,000 educators and school staff, previously asked schools across the state to implement their own mask requirements.
On Tuesday, PSEA President Rich Askey said Wolf’s mask order will be crucial to keeping schools open.
“This isn’t a choice between masking or not masking. It is a choice between keeping schools open for in-person learning or forcing far too many students to learn from the other side of a screen,” Askey said. “Universal masking in schools will reduce serious health risks for students, staff, and their families, help keep students in the classroom, and significantly reduce unnecessary interruptions to in-person learning.”
Wolf agreed, stating that the state would experience negative consequences if a statewide mask mandate wasn’t put in place.
"Doing nothing right now to stop COVID-19 – that's just not an option," Wolf said. "Doing nothing is going to mean more sick kids, it's going to mean more days out of school, it's going to mean more grief for communities and more problems for our economy."
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